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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Angels and gender

I realize that this is another gender post but this topic has generated a lot of discussion and I would like to hear more on this topic. The issue came up in the first place because Gordon Fee mentioned that he believed that the angels in διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους should be understood as "angels" and not "messengers" and that men and women should affirm the male-female distinction (not hierarchy, but just difference) in the assembly "for the sake of the angels", who were themselves ungendered. The Corinthians were misusing angelic (ecstatic) speech and were behaving as if the end times had already come.

I mention this as incidental information from Fee's class. Fee is himself always ready to admit that there are many things that we do not know for sure. I am simply trying to pass on what he said in class because I believe people are interested in this as an underlying assumption which he brings to Bible translation - that angels are ungendered. My understanding - and Jeremy's - is that this has been the classic Christian view. However, Martin counters this with a argument,
    As to names, note that Dan 9:21 reads האיש גבריאל, so describing Gabriel as a man. Surely the natural inference here is to assign male gender to the angel and the text would have to explicitly counter that text unless the readers were already aware that angels were ungendered.
Two other texts were mentioned in this connection are Gen. 18 and 32.
    Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby Gen. 18:2
    וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו

    So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. Gen. 32:24
    וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
The implication seems to be that because the Hebrew word אִישׁ ish is used for an angel, the angel must be male. However, there are many different ways of looking at this. First, the angels may simply have taken on the form of a man. In fact, in some traditions it is believed that one of the men who visited Abraham was God taking on a human form.

But at the core of this discussion is whether the word ish is intentionally male and whether we should derive some principle about the maleness of angels from the use of this word.

Fortunately I have just been reading a paper on the Hebrew word ish by David Stein. HT Iyov. Here is the premise of the paper,
    This paper reports on an investigation into the nature of ’ish in preparation for the article on ’ish in the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, edited by Reinier de Blois under the sponsorship of the United Bible Societies. My conclusion thus far is that ’ish has a very different function in biblical Hebrew than the conventional views allow. Overall, ’ish seems to be a term of affiliation, in which the word signals relationship either to a group or to another party. Only occasionally and incidentally does ’ish connote an “adult male.”
In a much longer paper dealing with Gen. 18:2 Stein concludes,
    VIII.A.23. As for rendering in the present verse, I would provide an ambiguous term such as “personages” or “figures” if I thought that the text’s original audience would have had reason to construe the foreground sense of ’anashim as being vague or equivocal. However, in this instance, the nature of ’anashim as a term of affiliation forces only one sense into the foreground, in which these visitors are agents—and whom Abraham recognizes as such from the start.

    VIII.A.24. Most translations, including NJPS, render ’anashim as “men.”17 NJPS may have meant “men” in either a vague sense (“figures”), or a simple sense (“adult males”), or an elevated one (Webster’s: “a prosperous or successful person : a person of consequence or high estate”). In any case, rendering as “men” does not convey the salient agency sense of ’anashim, and it also overtranslates the social-gender component of the Hebrew term (see Part VII). These features are severe disadvantages. A more accurate rendering is “[divine] envoys.”18
In reading Stein's series on ish I have noticed that he refers to 7 different Bible translations to represent the different ways of representing gender: KJV, Alter, NJPS, NIV, NRSV, TNIV, and CJPS, the Contemporary Jewish Publication Society version. There is more on the CJPS here at Higgaion. I had been intending to mention this paper some time ago, but other things have come up. Maybe this is a good time to look at the meaning of ish.

In view of this discussion of the meaning of ish is there further evidence that would tell us the angels are male? I would also have to question whether this would make angels gendered. That is, if all angels are male, aren't they unisex, and not gendered? To my way of thinking, God is ungendered, and angels are ungendered and we will be also in heaven. I'd be interested in finding out if there are other references to angels that comment on their gender.


At Mon Aug 06, 03:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, consider also Luke 24:4 where angels are andres. I repeat my comment on the previous post in this thread, in which I was taking this issue in the same general direction as you are in this new post:

Presumably angels are called "men" in the Bible (also in the New Testament e.g. Luke 24:4, andres) because they appeared in human bodies. Why "men" not "women"? I doubt if their sexual organs were visible. Perhaps their clothing or general shape and appearance was more like men than women, or maybe it was just a presumption in the culture that someone met at random was a man rather than a woman. Of course in many cases they appeared as warriors, who would certainly have been assumed to be male. But the point is surely not that they were actually male, or even human. Perhaps this has more to tell us about the meanings and use of 'ish and aner than about angels.

At Mon Aug 06, 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Bryan L said...


I don't know if this passage has any relevance in this discussion or if it was brought up or not (I haven't been following the full discussion) but Zechariah 5:9 "Then I looked up-- and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings! They had wings like those of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth."
The first time I read it I assumed it was women angels but I don't know, and I've never really looked into it.

Bryan L

At Mon Aug 06, 10:49:00 AM, Blogger Iris Godfrey said...

Hi Suzanne,
Due to the passage in Hebrews 1:7 (a quote from Psalm 104:4), it has always been my assumption that angels, like God, are sexless, but may appear in any form God deems suitable. Hence in Biblical times, since the ones writing Scripture were males, then males it would be. Also the quote by the Lord saying they do not marry -- gives credence to this. Brian L has a good point to think on also.

Anyway, from an English speaking Bible teacher, that would be my conclusion. I will read your coming posts with learning ears.

At Tue Aug 07, 06:46:00 AM, Blogger martin shields said...

Although I haven't had the opportunity to investigate the issue in detail, and so I may be way off the mark here, it strikes me that Stein's understanding of איש as "a term of affiliation" seems to me to be too broad (his examples suggest it can range in meaning from "family patriarch" to "representatives"). We could probably make a similar claim for words like אח 'brother' or דוד 'uncle'. ISTM that his argument would be something akin to defining 'red' as representing colour: the meaning is too broad, 'red' is a specific colour, not a vague reference to any colour, although many contexts would allow us to argue for a broader definition.

That being said, I don't think the association of this term with 'angel' necessarily demands that angels be male, but I think that there would need to be some impetus to counter the natural inference the language and descriptions encourage the reader to make for the reader to arrive at the notion that angels were ungendered. Such information need not be intrinsic to the text itself, it may be held tacitly by the audience. I was primarily interested in what Fee knew about first century beliefs about angels which substantiated his claim that angels are ungendered.

At Tue Aug 07, 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I just read Stein's first paper. It sounds as if he has an important point here, although it needs to be demonstrated with far more examples than he has given in this short paper. If he is right, this could have a profound effect on understanding the Bible - including the New Testament, in which aner may well turn out to be used in much the same way as Hebrew 'ish, especially in Semitic idioms and in OT quotes.

Martin, I take your point, but I am not convinced. Suppose you had a long text using the word "coloured" repeatedly, but you didn't know the meaning of the word "coloured". You examine the text and find that 90% of the things described as "coloured" are in fact red, and the others are other colours. Do you assume that the word in fact means "red", and that its use to describe some things of other colours is a secondary development? Perhaps, but if so you would be wrong. In fact the word does not specify the colour, and the 90% figure may be chance, or because the text happens to describe more red things than any other colour. Similarly, perhaps, for 'ish in the Hebrew Bible: the text is mostly about men (adult males) (and God, but he is not usually called 'ish - but see Exodus 15:3), so that is why most uses of 'ish refer to adult males. Now I am not sure that that is correct, but it is at least a possibility which Stein is right to explore.

At Tue Aug 07, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

My sense is that traditionally it was assumed that angels had no gender but could take on the appearance of either a male or female. But the most important thing is that this is not a significant teaching in the Bible either way.

So I think Fee is just stating what most people have always believed from Matt. 22 and since I agreed with him I didn't consider it further.

For example, this is from wikipedia.

Although most theologians in the cultures mentioned above (Latter-day Saints excepted; see above) would agree that angels are technically genderless in the normal human sense, all references in the Jewish, Christian and other holy writings mentioned above give angels a masculine aspect; for example, angels are given tasks such as warrior, herald, guard (at the gates of Eden), wrestler (of Jacob), mover of large stones (at the tomb of Christ), which in traditional societies would all have been tasks typically performed by men.

So I think there has been a consensus that angels don't have gender and let's not worry about it. I know there are many interesting paths one could go down but they don't relate to Bible translation. Just my thoughts.


If you wanted to propose an alternative explanation and comment on how that relates to translation we could discuss it further.

Definitely Fee does not say that he knows for sure why the angels are mentioned in 1 Cor. 11:10, this is just his thought on the idea. There are at least 20 different suggestions and many of them sound valid.


Have you looked at Stein's 8 part series on ish?

At Tue Aug 07, 03:25:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Have you looked at Stein's 8 part series on ish?

Not yet! Maybe I should.

I wonder if Reinier de Blois (whom I know) has actually accepted Stein's conclusions, for incorporation in his dictionary for use by Bible translation consultants? If so, that might have interesting consequences for future translations. But there is not yet an entry for 'ish in the ongoing online version of the dictionary.

At Tue Aug 07, 11:35:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


The full series and other interesting material is here and here.

At Sun Aug 19, 02:29:00 AM, Blogger ravsulomm said...

David E. S. Stein here: Of course I am pleased to find that you are showing an interest in my work! Although I am not competent to comment on literature written in Greek, perhaps it will also be of interest if I spell out my thinking specifically on the question of angels’ gender in the Hebrew Bible, which I pondered at length while preparing The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (which some of you, I think, discussed on the “Better Bibles” blog a year ago at the time of its publication). In that project, my goal was first to reconstruct the way that the Torah’s composer(s) expected the text’s original audience of that work (the Torah as a whole) to read its gender-related cues, and then to translate the Torah so as to reflect that way of reading. The perceived social gender of divine beings was one area that I had to consider. (The following treatment draws upon, and goes beyond, the entry on “messenger” in the “Dictionary of Gender in the Torah,” which is located in the back of that book.)

As the Hebrew Bible tells it, some of its subjects occasionally ascertain the divine will suddenly and intensely, as if receiving a burst of information; to express that spiritual experience of clarity, the Bible usually employs the metaphor of a particular human social institution: the delivery of a message via a messenger. In the ANE, messengers were commonplace and frequently engaged for all types of communication (personal, commercial, military, diplomatic, etc.) and to perform errands. The biblical terminology would have evoked the image of an emissary who happens to be from God but is expected to follow the protocols that human emissaries observe.

In ANE society, both men and women functioned as messengers. The best discussion of this topic seems to be Samuel A. Meier’s cautious yet informative article, “Women and Communication in the Ancient Near East,” JAOS 111/3 (1991): 540–547. Here I will quote from its latter portion, focusing on messengers: “The Akkadian marat shipri [a clearly female term for messenger] is attested from the Old Babylonian period down to the Persian empire. . . . One [also] finds women sent on missions implying messenger activity, even though the description marat shipri does not appear. . . . In Mesopotamia, female . . . messengers were continually confronting men, and it is consequently inappropriate to perceive the female world as an isolated entity. . . . Women [as messengers] were not simply an (admittedly rare) alternative but a preferred choice in certain contexts.” As evidence of female messenger activity in ancient Israel, Meier cites three biblical passages: 2 Sam. 17:17; Prov. 9:2–3; and Isa. 40:9. Direct evidence for Israelite women as messengers is scanty, but at the very least the prospect cannot be ruled out and the circumstantial evidence is strong.

Now let’s look at Hebrew language and grammar. One term that the Bible often uses for a messenger is ’ish. The text often uses ’ish conspicuously in the context of agency, as if the term was expected to reliably evoke in the original audience’s minds the widely attested sense of ’ish as “representative functionary.” In Zechariah 5:9, I would suggest that the word nashim functions to identify those specifically female messengers as being agents (implicitly performing an errand on God’s behalf) in the same way that ’anashim often does elsewhere for male agents. That is, both ’ish and ’ishshah are basically terms of affiliation rather than of gender; and in such cases the nature of the affiliation is one of agency.

When the Hebrew Bible refers nonspecifically to a messenger either with grammatically masculine language or with the male form of relational terms such as ’ish, such language is non-committal as to that messenger’s social gender; in such cases, the language functions as gender neutral (in the Hebrew original!), and social gender is not a direct concern of the text at that point. However, in such cases the ancient reader still might have inferred social gender from other contextual clues. For example, if a text refers to messengers wielding drawn swords, that would have reliably been construed as a sign of maleness, because in the ANE a sword was an archetypical male implement.

Now, if the reference is grammatically specific, then the masculine language or the male form of relational terms such as ’ish (as is applied to the angel Gabriel in the book of Daniel) would indeed have conveyed maleness, in addition to the primary lexical content (such as ’ish as a term of affiliation).

In saying that, I am assuming that readers are interpreting the text’s references to divine messengers in the same way as for ordinary language about human messengers. For I do not see on what basis messengers would qualify for an exemption from the rules of grammar. (By contrast, grammatically masculine language about God may have been construed as not conveying social gender, given that the Torah’s God is a singular being for whom the normal rules of grammar arguably would not apply.) The case of the specifically female messengers in Zechariah 5:9 seems to confirm that for the Torah’s original audience, it was indeed conceivable that divine beings had social gender even from within a monotheistic worldview. Also, the fact that some of the prophets were women shows that God was perceived as dispatching human females as messengers (see esp. the messenger formula that Huldah uses, 2 Kings 22:15 ff.), so why not divine females as well? The language of divine messengership was already metaphoric, expressing communication-at-a-distance with the Deity. Social gender could easily be a part of such metaphors without necessarily reflecting on God’s nature.

Or maybe the gender of angels did reflect on God’s nature, given that in the ancient Near East, the apparent tendency was for men to appoint male agents, while women appointed female agents. (So wrote Sam Meier.) To the extent that the Torah presented its God as beyond gender—which is disputed—it would have had reason to portray that Deity as an “equal opportunity employer” of messengers of both genders.

That being said, nearly all of the Hebrew Bible’s specific references to angels do seem to be to male beings. I am inclined to think that this high incidence of male messengers is a reflection of what was for many centuries the root metaphor of ANE social organization, namely, the patrimonial household, from which the Deity’s role as ultimate authority is quite naturally expressed by depicting the Deity as the male head of a household that consists of the entire polity. (See David Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East, 2001.)

Again, recourse to such an extended metaphor does not necessarily mean that the Bible was depicting its Deity as exclusively male. (The Bible misses many opportunities to make God’s maleness explicit, and I suspect that such silence is conspicuous and significant. But that’s for another time.)

Finally, as for Reinier de Blois and the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew that he is editing, he says publicly that my approach to ’ish is “worthy of serious consideration,” and he tells me that he is treating me as a co-author for the dictionary article on ’ish when it eventually appears. We are both waiting to learn from how my approach is received at the upcoming national SBL conference. Even then it will take a long time to categorize the lexical and contextual domains of a word that appears in the Bible more than 2100 times!

At Mon Sep 03, 09:40:00 PM, Blogger Jim Deardorff said...

Gen 6:4 indicates that the Nephalim were male. Though 1 Enoch makes clear that these were the "fallen" angels, they were nonetheless angels. Since they procreated with the native Earth women, these angels evidently were of a species having both sexes. Thus angels of both sexes were around from very early times.

This is consistent with the UFO/alien phenomenon, which has been most manifest since 1947, in which aliens -- some of quite human appearance -- of both sexes have been witnessed. References abound on this, though not in mainstream scientific literature where the preference is to leave this topic strictly alone.


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